It’s one thing to take a familiar cinematic fairy tale and reinvent it or tell it from different perspective (such as Maleficent’s take on Sleeping Beauty, the more action-oriented Snow White and the Huntsman, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, or last year’s exquisite The Jungle Book). But it’s an entirely different and far less interesting practice to simply take what is already animated perfection and re-create it with flesh-and-blood humans, alongside an abundance of computer-generated household objects come to life. Unlike The Jungle Book’s photorealistic take on a boy’s relationship with wild animals that wouldn’t be possible in the real world, Beauty and the Beast singing and dancing clock, candlestick, feather duster, tea set and other objects don’t look especially realistic or cleverly realized when placed side by side with the 1991 Oscar-winning Disney work.
It’s actually quite shocking how carefully director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls) and writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos stick on the animated version. Sure, there are brief added scenes, musical numbers and other flourishes that do little more than add length to the running time, but for the most part, even the color schemes, costume design, and the lovely songs from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are left intact. For all the talk in the marketing of transforming Belle (Emma Watson) into some variety of feminist icon by defying her role as a housekeeper for her elderly father Maurice (Kevin Kline) or as a potential wife for the town manly man Gaston (Luke Evans), there’s little evidence that anyone was willing to pull Belle out of her Disney princess role too abruptly.
This version of Beauty and the Beast opens with a prologue explaining how a French prince (Dan Stevens, formerly of “Downton Abbey” and currently killing it on “Legion”) was transformed from a foppish dandy into a terrifying creature by a vengeful enchantress (Hattie Morahan). Along with the Prince’s change, his castle’s staff also transform into an all-star cast of household objects, some of which were not in the 1991 film and most of which cannot sing nearly as well as the voice actors in that version. Voice work and singing is provided by the likes of Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, the candelabra; Ian McKellen as Cogsworth, the clock; Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, a teapot; Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette, a feather duster; Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza, a harpsichord; and the true singer of the bunch, Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe, a wardrobe.
While modern special effects technology can make these objects appear real enough to interact seamlessly with human actors, it can’t breathe personality into them. I’m genuinely surprised how little any of the actors (real-life or voice) stray from the performances of the animated film; if you’ve seen that, then you know exactly how everyone approaches their character. The one exception might be Josh Gad’s Lefou, the right-hand man to the oafish and often villainous Gaston, who not only wants Belle for his wife but he’s willing to kill the Beast to make it happen, once he realizes Belle might be falling for him. I’ve grown to appreciate Gad’s ability to add a little sparkle to each character he plays (and no, that’s not a reference to the fact that Lefou may or may not be gay, as the popular opinion seems to imply). Both in his speaking and singing voice, Gad is always able to add something to each line that lets you know he’s a bit demented, but still on our side. He knows that Gaston is a brute, a possible kidnapper, bordering on a full-blown stalker. And while it’s clear that Lefou is loyal to his master, we’re fairly certain he’s a good man who will put his foot down at the right moment.
Another standout is Steven, even behind the CG Beast face, while completely obscure his looks but not his dark sense of humor. This version of the beast is in a great deal of pain, knowing that his days are numbered. As soon as a rose the enchantress left behind loses its last petal, he and everything in the house stays in their transformed state forever, unless he find someone who truly loves him for what he is. But Beast seems somewhat aware of how ridiculous he looks doing the more dainty things he used to do and has fun with him trying to recapture that state of mind now that Belle had unwillingly become his guest.
The songs are still lovely, but not as much as I remember in the hands (and windpipes) of these actors. Probably the most charming moment comes when Mrs. Potts sings the song “Beauty and the Beast” in her cockney accent, but Emma Thompson can’t touch Angela Lansbury’s decades of belting out tunes on stages across the world.
As elaborate and detailed as the production design and costuming are in Beauty and the Beast, there’s no real sense that the filmmakers felt the need to truly try anything different. Every magical moment feels borrowed, and even the fleeting added moments feel like desperate filler. And it’s not that I have some special place in my heart for the animated version—it’s a masterpiece, don’t get me wrong—but I firmly believe that all you have to do is remember that the 1991 film even exists to know that this remake is something less than. I’m afraid the only people who are going to swept away by this film are those who never saw the original. This is not an example of bringing a fresh creative energy to a familiar story; this Beauty and the Beast is simply people saying “We have the technology to do this (mostly) in live action.” It’s beyond just feeling familiar; it’s a murky, mirror image of something wonderful. So when you view it, you’re reminded of something good, but this is not the good thing that it looks like.